Caves, rivers and forests in Borneo

The first thing that you see as your plane drops towards Kuching, the capital of Sarawak in Eastern Malaysia on the island of Borneo, is miles and miles of forest cut by winding brown rivers. We are here for a week during Chinese New Year 2016 to escape from Singapore and get back to nature. I have spent quite a bit of time in Malaysia - the peninsular north of Singapore - but never visited Borneo Malaysia. As soon as you get here you realise it is different. Sarawak was part of the sultanate of Brunei until James Brooke, a British adventurer, subdued a rebellion and in return the Sultan made him the governor in 1841. Brooke and then his nephew, Charles, and his son ruled Sarawak until World War II and did a lot to develop the country and support its native people. These included the Iban, Melanau, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu as well as Chinese traders and more recently Malays from the peninsular. Until the 1960s a big proportion of the population lived in longhouses and subsisted by slash and burn rice farming, fishing and foraging. Headhunting was largely stopped by the Brookes in the early 20th Century.

Borneo rain forest

After a night in Kuching we fly to Mulu - a 1hr 45 flight from one side of Sarawak to the other. Mulu airstrip is here for the National Park and it is a short ride to the surprising impressive Mulu Marriott hotel - built on stilts in the forest, next to a river and surrounded by forest and limestone cliffs. Beautiful butterflies circle as we check in. Our guide, Nicholas, is waiting to meet us and after a quick snack takes us off on what turns out to be a 3km walk through the National Park to reach Deer Cave, a huge and spectacular cave which has been subject, like the other caves in Mulu to exploration by cavers from all over the world. In the picture below two walkers cross one of the huge main chambers and in the one below that water falls hundreds of feet from the cave roof.


Next to Deer cave is the smaller but very beautiful Lang cave (below). This is full of amazing stalactites and stalactites as well as ornate columns. After exploring the cave we head back a short way down the valley to sit and watch the nightly spectacle of millions (literally) of bats streaming out of the cave on their hunt for insects all over central Borneo.


The video above shows the bats streaming out of the cave. First you see groups coming in short waves, then as we watch from the benches in the valley a big final wave streams out from the front of the cave. It is hard to see the bats against the cliffs but you see them once they are silouetted by the sky.

The following day we start with a trip up the river in a long boat. Nicholas steers the boat from one side of the river to the other, keeping to the outsides of the bends to avoid the shallows. We regularly meet rapids where the boatman guns the boat uphill between rocks and tree stumps. Sometimes the man at the bow has to pole as well - when the river is lower you need to get out and push! We stop off in a Penan village to look at their crafts. The Penan was one of the last tribes of real forest nomads and apparently there are still a few who live in basic shelters in the forest although the government now tries to rehouse them.

From here we head up river (see below) to Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave. These are part of an amazing underground system that stretches over 200km below Gunung Api - the local mountain. We think of the Lord of the Rings dwarves as we explore the huge underground chambers. After exploring the caves I have a welcome swim in the river and lunch before heading off in the boat again for a 40 minute ride up the windy river to the start our walk.

Many tourists come to Mulu to climb to the pinnacles - some spectacular limestone spikes on the way up Gunung (Mt) Api. You get there from Camp 5 in the National Park which is also our destination on the first leg of our trek. The trail is well marked with duckboards over the boggy sections and two rope bridges over the river which winds around us. It is hot in the forest and after 20 minutes we are both dripping. At 4.5km I stop at a bridge and spash river water over my head to cool down before embarking on the second half of our walk to camp. Camp 5 is a smartly built and clean hut/dormitory complex by the river with great views of the cliffs opposite. We have a refreshing swim before a dinner of lemongrass chicken and Borneo spinach cooked by guide Nicholas. Torrential rain rattles on the tin rooves and we are grateful that this did not come earlier when we were walking.

We are up at 6.30 to clear skies. The last of the Pinnacle climbers are leaving for their 3.5hr vertical ascents. Nicholas cooks fried rice then hands us over to Jackli who will guide us along the Headhunter trail. He is small with a shiny face and carries Vicky's sack as well as his own and a shotgun in case we meet a bear! The path is good and marked every km. Jackli finds the first leech - attached to his groin! No animal sightings but lots of sounds in the forest including "red monkey" calls and the swooshing of hornbill wings overhead. Later on we see a pair of hornbills in flight. Not as hot as yesterday but we are still soaked after a few hours. We sometimes divert from the path where trees have fallen and in one case have to crawl under a huge trunk that we can't get round. A rope bridge marks the halfway point (below). Approaching the end of the trail we pass an Iban man with a long stick for smoking out bees for honey along with an ill prepared Czech foursome. Finally we reach a landing stage where chief Siga and his wife are waiting with their boat. They slept at the nearby rangers station as they had brought Jackli up yesterday.

The two hour boat trip down river starts with some steep rapids. We later learn that they often ask the tourists to walk the roughest section as many boats have capsized here! Our trip is less eventful as the river is high. Forests with huge trees come down to the banks. Egrets, herons and kingfishers skim the water. After 90 mins we see villages and people swimming. The longhouse is a surprise - we knew that it was new but had not expected the bright orange tiles. 17 families live here. The building is no longer on stilts but it still has a long communal corridor (ruai) with individual family units (biliks) off it. Women sit on mats in the ruai and chat. We are staying in the chief's bilik which extends a long way back via a dark lounge with a large TV to washrooms and then a huge kitchen with a yard and sheds out the back. Our room is sparse (with AC) - it looks like a family member has been evicted for our stay. The daughter and daughter-in-law cook while kids run around. Dinner is chicken with five spice and cinnamon with pumpkin and fern tips (very good). Later Jackli returns with homemade rice wine (Tuak) - we sip this rather yeasty brew and chat with another resident - Robin - before turning in for the night. An interesting experience.

The longhouse headman drives us to Limbang in his ancient Land Cruiser. The pot holed road follows the ridges with misty views of the hills and rivers. Jackli comes along and guides us around the local market as we have 90 mins to spare before our flight to Miri and then another to Kuching.

During the last 2 days of our trip we explore Kuching, make an abortive trip to a reserve where we fail to see Orang-utans but then a great trip to the Bako National Park where we do another forest trail, take boats around the coast and spot proboscis monkeys swinging through the canopy. Our guide, Mas, was excellent in telling us about the area and local customs as well as finding snakes, monkeys, turtles and even a flying Loris.

Overall a great week. Sarawak has a very different feel from the Malaysia I had visited to date. Kutching is a growing city but still has an interesting waterfront (Grand Bazaar), Chinese shophouses, restaurants and museums. The forests and rivers dominate the landscape. The local people and their heritage is interesting (read Eric Jensen's book "Where Hornbills Fly") and the Mulu caves were spectacular.